Ropes are an integral part of a wrestling ring, and modern wrestling in general: top rope and springboard moves, dives, tower of dooms – all these moves rely on ropes in one way or another. Ever wondered about the rules that the WWE (and wrestling in general) applies with regard to ropes? Let’s dive into a few technicalities, from the well-known to the more obscure.
The rope break is the most obvious rule in wrestling when it comes to ropes – and arguably the most misunderstood. Wrestlers need to break when an opponent touches the ropes or has a body part underneath the ropes. If they do not oblige, the referee issues a five count before he calls for the disqualification. A pinfall or submission must also be broken up if one of the contestants is in the ropes. But why is this rule often also applied for matches with no disqualification?
Technically, a fall still has to take place inside the ring unless stated otherwise. While the ropes are part of the ring, they are considered neither inside nor outside of it. They are the barrier. This means that when a wrestler is partly outside the ring – or at least not fully inside of it – a fall cannot take place. This is why the rule also applies in other matches with no disqualification that still require a fall to take place inside the ring, like Submission Matches, Street Fights or Steel Cage Matches. While it is not illegal to keep a submission hold on in those cases, a wrestler can’t win while his opponent is in the ropes (unless the match has an added Falls Count Anywhere stipulation). This rule also means that the apron is technically outside of the ring and therefore a wrestler on the apron, who has no body part inside the ring, should be counted out.
Ever wondered why referees issue a five count when wrestlers climb the ropes? The answer is simple: climbing the ropes is illegal too. While the rule is rarely applied today, you could still see referees like Brian Hebner in the early 2000s begin a count on wrestlers when they went to the top rope. Of course, nobody in modern WWE history has ever got disqualified for it.
WCW, however was a different story. The company outlawed top rope moves in 1992 during Bill Watts’ reign. The rule was intended to give top rope moves a more devastating impact and provide heels with another rule to break. However, it ended up hurting stars like Ricky Steamboat, Brian Pillman and Bobby Eaton who had to change major parts of their offense and finishing moves.
While the rule didn’t last long, it still made its effects known in at least one PPV. At Beach Blast 1992, it cost the team of Arn Anderson, Bobby Eaton and Steve Austin the match against Nikita Koloff, Barry Windham and Dustin Rhodes.
This one seems about as archaic as climbing the ropes but it is probably a bit more well-known, mostly because WCW held on to the rule until the mid- to late nineties. The concept seems simple: if a wrestler throws their opponent over the top rope to the outside, they’re disqualified. Well, in practice, it wasn’t that easy.
The tricky part here was that a wrestler had to be intentionally thrown over the top rope. The wording was important as it left room for interpretation. Usually, only propelling an opponent over the rope with a head-start or a backdrop led to a DQ. Clotheslines or dropkicks that sent an opponent over the ropes were usually considered legal because it was ruled that the wrestler’s momentum took him over the rope, not the move itself. Whether that distinction makes any sense at all remains up for debate.
The rule led to many “Dusty Finishes” where fans were led to believe the babyface won only to have the decision reversed. The most prominent example is probably the Road Warriors not winning the NWA World Tag Team titles at Starrcade 1987 in their (kayfabe) hometown of Chicago because Animal had thrown Arn Anderson over the ropes prior to the finish.
This rule seemed to die a quiet death in the late nineties to early 2000s but has since seen a bit of a revival, pun intended. During a tag team match, the team corners each have a tag rope attached to them which the team member on the outside has to hold on to in order to make a legal tag (a legal tag defined as slapping the partner’s hand while reaching over the top rope, but that’s a story for a different time). While nobody really seems to care these days whether a tag is made legally, the tag rope can still be seen at every WWE show.
While this isn’t quite a rule, it is still pretty interesting to note that WWE is the only major wrestling promotion to use actual ropes instead of steel cables. The only other promotion to do so, the AWA, closed its doors nearly thirty years ago.
Why? According to Jim Cornette, Vince McMahon told him that the WWE had always used real ropes and never made the switch. The tradition probably stems from the time when Vince McMahon’s grandfather, Jess McMahon, promoted both boxing and wrestling in the New York area and just used the same ring for both sports. This is also why the WWE (and now AEW) ring is bigger than most other traditional wrestling rings (20×20 feet instead of 16×16 or 18×18).
A lot of these rules do not apply — or make any sense — from today’s standpoint, since wrestling has evolved from a mat-based sports presentation to a fast-paced, high-flying, athletic showcase. But they still served a purpose in their time, and make for a fascinating bit of wrestling history.
The ropes have been an integral part of wrestling history, and involved a number of important (and wacky) rules over the years.